Read An Excerpt From Learn To Love Me By Sinead MacDughlas
Thursday, August 10th, 1995
The smell of sweat, stale cigarettes and burnt coffee was like a threadbare blanket, the kind you toss on the end of the sofa and forget, but on a cold evening it suddenly becomes a comforting treasure. Most of the time I detested the cloud of smoke hovering just below the ancient ceiling fans, which hadn’t spun in a decade. I hated the way the scent of the place crept into my clothes and clung, with the tenacity of a dense ex-boyfriend, long after I’d left the office. Though I loved my job, I usually dreaded my little corner of the newsroom. Today, it was a haven where I could flee the tension at home. At least, it should have been a haven.
As journalists, death, destruction and misery were supposed to be things we wrote about, vague demons lurking in the periphery of our daily lives, without marking us. Seldom did we allow a story to more than scratch the surface of our psyche. In the darkest corners of our minds, we surely knew we couldn’t remain untouched forever.
“Hey, Emily,” John called out from the sports desk.
“Jeez, The Kid finally got here on time!” Stan’s raspy baritone rolled through the office. The sight of a half a dozen Kilroys suddenly popping up above the bulky computer monitors, scattered throughout the room, would normally have embarrassed me. Today, I had to stifle a laugh, as a giddy sense of relief overwhelmed me. I practically skipped to my desk, situated directly in the centre of the dingy cloud of cigarette smoke.
“Jeez,” I echoed, “are you still breathin’ Stan? Haven’t those cancer-sticks got you yet?”
He was a permanent fixture at the paper, a lifer. In his prime he’d been a ‘brilliant journalist bestowing his talent on an undeserving smalltime snot-rag.’ His description, not mine. It may have been crude and egocentric, but it was apt, nonetheless. Nowadays, he wrote chirpy columns about seniors groups and crusty tirades against the ‘ungrateful youngsters, ruining the world with their damned pop-culture!’
Stan’s desk was where the miasma originated. Though the Smoking in the Workplace Act had been in force in Ontario for five years, no one was about to tell him to step outside, to satisfy his addiction. Everyone complained, and made flippant remarks about his imminent lung cancer, but we were truly in awe of Stanley Willems.
If the reporters’ grudging respect for him didn’t keep them from taking their complaints beyond teasing, self-preservation provided the extra incentive. His wits were still sharp and quick, and his tongue had been known to reduce grown men to quivering children in less than three sentences. Everyone on staff had an unspoken pact to drink his half-charred, Columbian sludge with a cheerful smile, work with the windows open year-round, and tune out the clacking of the keys on his old, electric typewriter.
Our shared, often paired, position as human interest columnists gave us a unique relationship, which would never have developed outside the newsroom. He was my mentor, and oddly, a friend.
“How goes the battle, Kid?” Stan didn’t look up from his frantic typing. A pen hung out of his full-lipped mouth like a cigarillo. He was chewing viciously on the end of it.
“I’m in full retreat,” I admitted.
“Humph! Man’s an idiot.”
When he spat out the mangled pen and reached for his cigarettes, I cringed reflexively. The unreliable police scanner, in its corner beside the coffee maker, chose that instant to start working.
The opening static always startled me. It crackled like a demented popcorn machine “…confirmed ten thirty-four, no sign of ten eighty-three. Subject is Brandi Millord, that’s Bravo, Romeo, Alpha, November, Delta –” The voice was rendered barely audible by continued static.
My lungs seized. I was at my little bulletin board before the officer finished spelling, feverishly scanning the ‘ten code’ list Stan had typed out for me.
“India, Mike, India, Lima — Lima, Oscar, Romeo, Delta. — aged — ” the voice on the scanner paused, “seventeen, wearing –”
Stan had stopped typing, and everyone in the room froze, straining to hear the officer’s description. The blood pounded in my skull as I redoubled my efforts to find the correct code.
“Dark-red T-shirt, blue jeans, white runners — hair reddish-brown — eyes blue — ”
I finally found the codes, and they broke my heart: ten thirty-four, missing person; ten eighty-three, break and enter.
“One identifier, a small strawberry birthmark on the back of the neck — last seen twenty-three hundred — night before last — I’m gonna ten twenty-five the rest.”
Another blast of static signaled the sign off. “Ten four, unit thirty-six — ten nineteen.” A female voice responded. I turned back to my list as the office erupted. Ten twenty-five was report in person; ten nineteen, return to the department.
“Haven’t you memorized that list yet, Kid?” Stan hissed at me as he exhaled. “You’re never gonna make a news reporter if you don’t use the tools right. You’re not gonna get promoted by batting those emerald eyes at the Chief, Em. Little-girl looks work against you on news, dammit. The brass needs to know you know your stuff.”
It felt like it took forever to swivel my chair to face him. He was glaring at me over the rims of his cheap reading glasses.
“Christ on a cross, Em, You’re white as a ghost! Aw crud, Kid, you know that girl?”
“My first article.” My voice echoed in my head, like I was talking into a tin can. “She was my subject.”
“I thought her last name was Bailey?” Stan shot back. He had an amazing memory.
“It was. Her step-dad was Millord, but he was starting the adoption process when I interviewed them.” I was grateful for the questions. They gave me something to cling to as I dragged myself out of the shock, and back to journalistic detachment.
“Damn! That’s right, I should’ve remembered – Garry Millord.” He stabbed out the cigarette, half finished, with his long thin fingers. “She was fourteen then, wasn’t she? Musical prodigy, volunteered at the community centre teaching kids to play piano?”
The door to the editor’s office flew open. “Right, I want somebody on this one, now!” Marcus shouted into the newsroom, “Background, picture, full report from the cops!” His sharp grey eyes scanned the room for Beth Green, our smalltime excuse for a police liaison. When he didn’t find her, he pinched the bridge of his aquiline nose and squeezed his eyes shut.
“The Kid’s got background covered, Chief!” Stan hollered back. “Pull her first column, Brandi Bailey. It’s the same girl, three years ago.”
It never bothered me when Stan called me Kid. A couple of the senior reporters resented me, because I’d never achieved my degree in journalism. On their nastier days, they implied that I’d acquired my position through questionable, possibly sexual, means. When they were feeling nicer, they would simply whisper about how my youthful looks must appeal to the editor’s paternal instincts.
Stan would never admit it, but I’d often caught him sweeping the room with a scowl when the grumbling started. He’d never gone to college either, because the Second World War had made the paper desperate for reporters, to replace men who’d enlisted. He’d been promoted from part-time junior to full time reporter, cutting his studies short in high-school. Our mutual lack of a formal journalistic degree was, I’m certain, one of the reasons Stan had taken me under his smoky wing right away.
“No don’t,” I yelled out, turning back to my cluttered bulletin board. I rifled through the papers pinned to it and found the clipping, dated April 8th, 1992, under the police code list. It was already yellowed, likely by the cigarette smoke, but the sweetly naïve face still radiated out of the photo. “I’ve got it right here.”
“Isn’t that cute,” someone chuckled, the sarcasm oozing. “The Kid still has her first byline pinned up.”
“Shut the hell up, Smith,” Marcus snapped at the senior news reporter. The editor’s mouth was drawn tight, making the thin top lip nearly disappear. The bottom one cast a narrow shadow above the chin he’d thrust out in a show of aggression.
“I should give O’shea this one,” he waved a hand absently at me, and glared at Greg Smith, “just to spite you, but I need a senior staffer on it, so you work together, and play nice. You’ve got the main piece. O’Shea, you deal with the background. Somebody get Green moving on the cops. If this turns into something I want it first!”
He slammed back into his office. For a moment, I thought I might hyperventilate. Brandi was missing and, just like that, I’d graduated to reporter. I didn’t want to believe one, and wasn’t sure if I could believe the other. I gaped at Stan.
“Congrats, Em. You finally get to put your teeth into a real story.” He stood up without the assistance of his cane and hobbled to my desk to shake my hand.
As always, I was struck by his likeness to silver screen actor William Powell. He even had the thin, ‘w’-shaped mustache, slicked-back hair, and arching eyebrows. Stan’s hair was far greyer than Powell’s had been during his The Thin Man days, but just as thick. No one really knew his age, though most of us guessed at somewhere near seventy-five. Someone had discovered a loose article clipping, ragged and yellowed, when the old wooden storage cabinets in the archive had been moved around. It was a front-page piece, with the date November 20th, 1945, and Stan’s byline just below the headline, Will Justice be Served in Nuremberg?
Arching his long, thin frame down to meet my eyes, he whispered, “Close your mouth; you look like a lost guppy.”
I snapped my mouth shut, so hard my teeth hurt.
“Now don’t let Greg bully you, girl. He might be senior news, but you’ve got great instincts, and a way with words. You’ll do just fine. Don’t get too fired up about this story, though. That girl’s likely a runaway, and they’ll find her in an hour or two, at the mall.”
“No way. She’s not the type. Great family, nice house, lots of friends, she’s got no reason to take off.”
“That was three years ago, Em. The girl’s life could be a whole new story now. Never take for granted what someone’s…”
“I had coffee with her last week…” I cut him off, impatiently brushing my bangs away from my eyes. “We meet up every month or so, to catch up. She’s an only child. She always wished she had a big sister…” I shrugged.
“You’ll never make a real news reporter, Kid,” he snapped, but with a hint of indulgent sympathy. He was shaking his head as he spoke. “You get too involved. Can’t keep objective if you adopt every damned person you write about.”
“Maybe I should contact the investigating officer. I might be able to help in some way.”
“All you’re gonna do is get in the way of his investigation. If they need your help, they’ll come looking for you. In the meantime, how ’bout you show the Chief he didn’t make a mistake promoting you.”
Stan limped back to his desk and flopped into his chair. Sticking the disfigured pen back into his mouth, he went back to typing and chewing with equal vigour.
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Despite her secret past, Emily O’Shea was finally living a normal life. There had been some arguments with her husband, Trevor, lately, but no marriage is perfect. At least the column she writes for the local paper is going well…that is, until one of her interviewees goes missing, and a monster from her past resurfaces.
Within a week Emily’s life spins into chaos. Missing girls, a telephone stalker, murder, a monster, and an intense ex-lover; it’s turning out to be one hell of a summer!
Her husband is acting erratically, her boss is threatening to pull her column, and the police suspect she’s the muse for a murderer. Can Emily save her marriage, her job, her life and her sanity? More importantly, are her darkest fears justified? Does Emily already know who the killer is and, if she does; can she do anything to stop them?
About The Author:
Sinead MacDughlas is a Canadian writer with an addiction to the written word. Though she’s been honing her craft for over thirty years, Learn To Love Me is her debut full-length novel, and the result of over two years of intensive work.
Her favourite writing fuel is coffee, with the music she loves playing in the background, and the inspiration of a lifetime of people watching. Sinead plans to continue writing as long as there are readers who enjoy her work.